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Refugee Stories: “I was terrified but I knew I had to save my children’s lives”

The plight of refugees and migrants from South America grows more drastic and their fate more uncertain. Refugee Stories are testimonies from children, adults, and families, gathered by the Salvadorean Lutheran Church, our companion synod in El Salvador, and CARECEN, an organization working to change the immigration system, win legal status for immigrants, and foster community activism. These stories are a tool and a witness for Refugee and Migrant Sunday and beyond; please share them with your congregations and ministries.

“I cannot return to Honduras because I will be killed, either by my ex-partner or gang members.

“Several years ago, gang members murdered my husband. They mistook him for someone else and shot him in the street. I was left with three children to raise on my own. The gangs were angry because I spoke to the police when my husband was murdered, and I was so afraid that they would hurt me or my children. The police didn’t do much in investigating my husband’s murder anyway.

“Eventually, I got together with my ex-partner, Diego. I thought he could help me support my children and be a father figure to them, but once he moved in with us, he became extremely abusive. He would beat me often, and one time, he beat me so badly that he broke the bones in my hand. He was very controlling and wouldn’t let me get any medical treatment, so the bones healed poorly and are painful and twisted to this day.

“Diego’s presence also did nothing to protect us from the gangs. Gang members constantly harassed my teenage son to join them, and when he refused, they shot him too. I didn’t think I could take his death after losing his father, but thankfully he survived. After he was shot, my son stopped going to school and stayed at home to avoid any further problems. We were too poor to move to another part of Honduras, and Diego wouldn’t let me leave even if I had been able to.

“Once my son stopped leaving the house, the gangs started harassing my daughter, demanding that she join the gang. She was only 14 years old. When she refused, they threatened to rape and kill her. She came home terrified and even though the police didn’t help much when my husband was killed, I reported the threats to them in hopes that they could help protect my daughter. The gang members found out right away that I had reported the threats; I think someone at the police station told them I had been there.

“The gang members came to our house later that night and were very angry. They said they would rape me and my daughter, torture and kill us if we did anything else to defy them. My daughter stopped going to school after that, and I decided to take the risk to leave the country. Two of my children were too scared to go to school, and I knew it was just a matter of time before the gang members killed one of them. However, Diego didn’t want to let us leave, and told me he would tell the gang members if I tried to get away.

“I was terrified but I knew I had to save my children’s lives. One night, when Diego was out, we fled, taking almost nothing with us. Diego followed us and caught up with us in Guatemala, but he was caught by the Guatemalan authorities and sent back to Honduras. My three children and I continued our journey and finally made it to the United States. We asked for protection at the border and were detained for a short time before being released to a family friend in Los Angeles.

“The friend did not let us stay for very long because I wasn’t able to find a job; it was very hard for me to find work without a work permit. My children and I were homeless, and slept in a friend’s car and even in a park before we were able to find a place to live. It was very frightening to stay in the park; I stayed awake all night to make sure no one tried to hurt my children. Eventually, another friend took us in and let us stay.

“I am doing what I can to make money but I barely make enough to feed my children. I can’t afford a lawyer, and I can’t get a work permit until after I submit my asylum application. The court says I can’t fill out the form in Spanish and I can’t afford to pay anyone to help me. Even though it has been hard since we arrived, I am grateful that my children are safe, but fear what will happen if we are deported. I am scared that we won’t win our case because I will have to represent myself and my children in court.”